Friday, October 6, 2023

Q&A with Shelley Fraser Mickle




Shelley Fraser Mickle is the author of the new biography White House Wild Child: How Alice Roosevelt Broke All the Rules and Won the Heart of America. Her other books include Borrowing Life. She lives in Gainesville, Florida.


Q: You write that your interest in Alice Roosevelt Longworth started when you were writing a history of kidney disease. Can you say more about that?


A: Writing White House Wild Child came from a monumental decision. For decades I had been writing novels and also humorous commentaries for NPR. To write a novel, you have to be cool; and if I were ever cool, it had by then rubbed off. But I didn’t want to stop writing.


I decided it was time to switch genres. In searching around for a nonfiction project, my husband, who trained under the surgeon Joe Murray, suggested that the story about Joe doing the first successful kidney transplant would make a mighty fine story.


Indeed, Joe was awarded the Nobel Prize for what is considered to be one of the greatest contributions to humankind in the 20th century.


However, I thought that surely some great writer like David McCullough or Walter Isaacson had already done that. Yet when I looked into it, I found that no one had written an account of the first successful organ transplant for the general public. The surgeons involved had written their memoirs, but their accounts felt like going to grand rounds.


 I decided we desperately needed a narrative history of the man-made miracle that impacts so many lives today. So I took on writing Borrowing Life.  


Writing the discovery of how the immune system works to break the barrier of rejection seemed a foolhardy project for someone who had made a C in college zoology, but it looks like now I am living proof that if you want to do something bad enough, you will push your mind beyond report-card boundaries. Besides, I was born with a dash of hot sauce in my genome.


In my research for Borrowing Life, I found that many historical figures suffered from kidney disease. Charles Dickens created fictional characters who suffered from dropsy, the common term in those days for kidney failure.


And then, I came upon the fact that one of the historical figures who died of kidney disease was Alice Hathaway Lee, Alice Roosevelt’s mother.


No one suspected that she suffered from kidney disease while she was pregnant, but during labor, her doctor diagnosed her with Bright’s disease and then simply had to watch all her organs shut down. She died in a coma in Teddy Roosevelt’s arms.


So overcome with grief, he could not look baby Alice in the eye nor say her name. The effects of grief on a child should be brought to life for all readers, I decided.


The challenge also gave me a chance to revive other women who had faded from history, such as wet-nurses, and T.R.’s remarkable sister, the first Eleanor Roosevelt, nicknamed Bamie. I feel enormously privileged to be the writer to bring these people back in the pages of a book.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I researched White House Wild Child by secondary sources and what Alice wrote in her memoir Crowded Hours.


What surprised me most was finding Bamie, T.R.’s older sister, hidden in history, essentially evaporated from our current knowledge. I found a book about her in a rare bookstore. No one has yet written about her as I have, even correcting facts about her and Alice that are part of the Ken Burns’ series on the Roosevelts.


I don’t want to give away all of that delicious part of White House Wild Child, because I want everyone to read this book to know who Bamie was.


In short, when writer Lillian Rixey went to Alice in the last decades of Alice’s life to ask if she could write her biography, Alice said, “Why not do Auntie Bye? If she had been a man SHE would have been president.”


The reason she was called Auntie Bye is mesmerizing. I will leave that too to readers to discover. What Lillian Rixey wrote about Bamie was fashioned from letters Bamie wrote to her son. You see, Bamie WANTED to evaporate from history.

When T.R. died, she scratched out all her advice to him in letters she had written to him. She wanted all the glory to go to her beloved brother. She recognized in their childhood that he was a genius, destined for greatness.


She engineered his political career and was his advisor throughout his presidency. Her house in Washington was known as the Little White House.


A juicy tidbit—not in White House Wild Child but uncovered in my research—is that T.R. and Bamie’s mother Mittie was the model for Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara.


Margaret Mitchell was a young writer at the Atlanta paper when she was sent to interview the only living member of Mittie’s bridal party. This elderly woman told the riveting story that Mittie’s reputation as an enchanting Georgia beauty reached even to N. Y. City where wealthy young Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. decided he had to go see for himself. When he arrived at the Georgia mansion, he slipped a calling card under the door to a young slave girl named Toy to deliver to young Mittie.


That was the beginning of one of the most important families in American history, for Mittie and Theodore Sr. had four children, one of whom would be the father of Eleanor Roosevelt, the future first lady.  For those who know a good bit about the Roosevelt family, this new book will be like sipping champagne.


Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about Alice?


A: In researching White House Wild Child, I found that the main misperception of Alice was that she was a mischief-maker who was great fun but not much else.


In the multitude of books about T.R., including a multivolume memoir by Edmund Morris, I found scenes when Alice participated in her father’s administration, especially in his ending the Russian-Japanese war for which he was the first president to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.


I included those scenes but thought I still needed a primary source to fill out Alice’s life. Since Alice’s granddaughter is still living, I hired a search company to get her phone number. She never answered the phone.


Writing Borrowing Life qualified me to become a member of Biographers International, in which I became acquainted with Jonathan Alter, the revered biographer of Jimmy Carter.


Jonathan told me that a play in N.Y. about Alice and Eleanor was recently staged and he went to see it. He learned from the playwright that she too had been unable to communicate with Alice’s granddaughter and eventually learned that Alice’s granddaughter did not want Alice’s antics to be the focus of Alice’s life.


She loved her grandmother. They had a wonderful relationship. Her granddaughter wants Alice to be known by more than her wild antics.


Yes, Alice was great fun—saying things like Calvin Coolidge looks like he’s been weaned on a pickle, and if you can’t say anything nice about anyone, come sit beside me. But at the same time, she was suffering from a wounded childhood. She even said about herself that she specialized in meanness.


Remarkably, she changed completely at the age of 73— which gives hope for any of us. As Faulkner told us, the important stories are those that deal with the heart in conflict with itself, and Alice could not budge her father’s grief to release the unconditional love she craved.


Constantly risking hurting him to get him to look at her, she competed with everyone and everything for attention. At their core, she and her father were alike: fierce, brilliant, tenacious. They both lived haunted lives. The dead Alice Lee left her calling card on both of them. 


I think I rounded out Alice’s legacy in the regard that she will be known now by more than her antics—and in a mere 200 pages! Not a daunting read.


What I am most proud of in writing White House Wild Child is giving equal importance to the American history that is the canvas of Alice’s story.


The last page of White House Wild Child is a result of a long study of craft, knowing how to structure a narrative history to read like a novel, yet with every word documented, interpreting history. I used facts for Alice to resonate with a reader’s own life.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: As to writing projects in the future, I’m putting all my time now in telling everyone about Alice. I am not working on anything. I’m merely taking in the wonder of it all.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: As to anything else I want readers to know: I’d love to hear from you. I have a Facebook page Shelley Fraser Mickle, public figure, where you can comment on what you learn in reading White House Wild Child, most specifically about the effect of fathers on daughters.


We talk a lot about fathers and sons, but what about fathers and daughters? White House Wild Child can be said to be a cautionary tale for fathers because a father’s regard for his daughter is the source of young women’s strength in a world that is not always kind to them.


Lastly, I’ll make a bold prediction: I always keep an impressive book on my bedside table so if I die in my sleep, it’ll make me look good. White House Wild Child is bedside-table worthy.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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